The first time I went to Kent to meet Nicky’s parents (we’ve now been married for 21 years) I was somewhat nervous. A few months earlier I’d broken up with a girl whose mother and father had given me a terrible dressing down for being a failure. So what would happen this time? I’d stopped at the level crossing on the lane where Nicky’s parents live when a man came up to my window and said, ‘You must be Jonathan’. It was Nicky’s father. Years later I asked him how he’d known it was me: ‘There aren’t that many people with a kippah driving down this way’, he replied. No one could be more welcoming than Nicky’s parents.
How do we welcome people into our communities and homes? It’s an important mitzvah: hachnasat orchim, ‘bringing in wayfarers’, is listed by the Talmud as a kind act to which there is no limit. Some shuls even had rooms for guests up in the eaves; the community would ask them back for meals. East-Enders may remember that one always laid an extra place at meals; no poor man or unexpected guest should be made to feel a trouble.
At one level, offering welcoming is not so complicated. One only needs to ask people to meet and greet everyone, with a special eye for those who are new or unfamiliar. But even then it’s no small matter, and I’m grateful to those who look after others in this manner. It’s not always easy to have a smile for everyone, without exception, to be kind when feeling flustered, to approach those who look lost, risking the rebuke that they’ve ‘been coming for years’, and to still offer a nice word when someone treats you like an official.
Kiddush, an unstructured social situation, is more challenging. Paradoxically, the ritual setting of the service itself has clear boundaries which bestow a kind of safety. But at Kiddush one can swiftly find oneself alone. Do we who feel at home stick among our friends, or do we turn to people we don’t yet know, to those around the edges, and draw them in? We’re all sometimes tired; we all sometimes want it easy. Yet, for many, Kiddush is the decisive point where either a sense of comfort or creeping alienation settles in the heart.
But there is a deeper level to true welcome. Every person comes with a story in the heart, a story one never completely understands even if one becomes a friend and doesn’t know at all at first meeting. Is there the pain of grief in this person’s soul? Is her child ill? Has a new loneliness opened like a chasm with the breaking of a long relationship? Has accustomed aloneness become the expectation of rejection? Will this be a place which will humiliate me if I’m not successful, married, and religious, but gay, alone, without children, recently made redundant, not very Jewish, not Jewish at all, disabled, or in some way ill?
Welcome is also about the receptive space we create within ourselves for other peoples’ as yet untold stories. We cannot possibly carry the burden of everyone’s harsh experiences of the world, but we can try to convey that a synagogue is a place of many stories, where chesed, loving kindness is strong enough to include them.
Must we bother? Here lies our choice between two interpretations of the Bible’s best known verse: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’. We can be open only to such neighbours as are ‘like ourselves’. Or we can try to treat everyone who comes to our door as our neighbour, welcoming them as we ourselves would hope to be welcomed wherever we went.
There aren’t many places of true refuge in our society where we can all meet, embraced equally by God’s presence. I would hate to feel that the doors of God’s house were ever unnecessarily shut.